Interview

Technology, Memory, and Jewish History: An Interview with Novelist Dara Horn

By | February 25, 2014

(Michael B. Priest)

(Michael B. Priest)

What are the proper limits of technology in our personal lives? Dara Horn’s new novel, A Guide for the Perplexed, takes up this question as it presents a modern-day version of the biblical story of Joseph and his brothers, in which a new app (not entirely unlike Facebook) allows individuals to track and archive every moment of a life (and feel confident that technology can capture what is most important in a life). Horn interweaves this modern narrative with stories of the recovery, in the late nineteenth century, of the Cairo Genizah. (“Genizah” is Hebrew for hiding place. Judaism requires that documents with God’s name be stored in a community’s genizah before they are buried, since they cannot be treated as trash.) The genizah in the Cairo synagogue includes the community’s documents for almost a millennia, starting in the late tenth century. Unlike other genizot (plural), this community’s custom was to place in their genizah anything written in Hebrew letters, not only those documents with God’s name. The result was that when the Cambridge University scholar Solomon Schechter visited the Cairo Genizah in 1896, he found real historical gems, including the letters of the medieval Jewish philosopher Moses ben Maimon, but also plenty of the mundane: grocery lists, sales receipts, love-letters, and business contracts, to name a few.

Does all of this stuff constitute history? Does it deserve a place in the precious real estate of our communal or individual memory? It is not difficult to make the leap from the clutter that Schechter confronted, to our own. But today we moderns carry even more of our past on our backs (or in the cloud), and Horn’s contemporary story, juxtaposed with Schechter’s archiving of the genizah, enables the reader to consider the question of what to save and what to let go, and how these decisions impact our relationships with the past and others.

History, Jewish religion, and memory are not new themes for Horn, whose previous award-winning novels, In the Image (2002), The World to Come (2006), and All Other Nights (2009), as well as her 2012 e-book, The Rescuer, have taken their titles and themes from Jewish religious and political history. Horn holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Harvard, where she specialized in Hebrew and Yiddish literature. I chatted with Dara—as we’ve been doing since we were 17—over the phone and through email. –R.G.

R&P: I have always thought that you write novels the way a historian would like to write fiction: historical events are made relevant to contemporary issues via a thrilling narrative. Why is history such a rich source for you, as a novelist? 

DH: I do seem to spiral into these historical moments. This is my fourth novel, and when I began it, my intent was to write a completely contemporary book. When I was on tour for my last novel, about Jewish spies during the Civil War, I had people coming to my readings in costumes, with muskets. It was a little too much historical saturation for my taste, so I hoped to write something as contemporary as possible: the main character is a software developer! But when I saw that the program she created was precisely about recording everything—about the distinction between memory and history—I saw that I needed to test that distinction against something more significant than a fictional character’s childhood. So I went back to the original genizah at that point, and then back into Maimonides’ life. But your question is really about why I’m drawn to writing about the past at all.

The snarky answer, of course, is that historical fiction is always about the time when it’s being written, not the time when it supposedly takes place, because there has to be a reason why the writer is drawn to that particular time and the questions it raises. (The same is true of historians!) But the sincere answer is that I feel that the sense of shallowness that pervades much of American life is due to the fundamental American cultural premise that having a past is optional, that each of us is a self-made person with no antecedents that matter, that one can build a Wal-Mart on an Indian burial ground and call it progress. There is a genuine importance in that national priority of forgetting and the room it leaves for opportunity and invention. But it runs so counter to [what is at] the heart of the American Jewish experience—that dissonance between American culture, which tells us that the past doesn’t matter, and Jewish culture, which tells us that it’s the only thing that matters. I also find that I sense the way the past lives within the present, even in my private life. I feel it in everyday experiences, always, like a life that lives just below the surface of our daily world. I think that tension, between a past that can’t disappear and a present that tries its best to hide it, motivates almost everything I do as a writer.

R&P: I read this book in a day, and I was surprised that a historical novel with strands about Solomon Schechter and Maimonides could be such a fast-paced thriller! How do you accomplish that pace in your writing?

DH: I’m easily bored, and I don’t have patience for contemporary literary novels that fail to provide a plot. Plot is very important to me because I see it as a way of expressing belief in fiction. You can’t have a plot without a belief or set of beliefs (not necessarily formal concepts like “God exists,” but more subtle ones like “people can’t really change” or “jealousy is a stronger emotion than love” or “this character deserves to succeed because she is kind/creative/loyal/insightful”) that are presented at the start of the story, and the plot is essentially the testing of those principles. As for the pace: I’m an impatient person, and I don’t plan my novels in advance at all. So I’m writing the story the same way you’re reading it—to find out what happens next!

R&P: Your protagonist, software mogul Josie Ashkenazi, invents a computer application called Genizah, which archives everything users create, and maintains a comprehensive, permanent record of users’ lives: the photos, the emails, the music, and the videos that form the records of our lives. As your contemporary characters illustrate, we feel great attachment for this “sacred trash” (an attachment that is not dissimilar to what scholars and historians feel about archives). But your story suggests that our most sanctifying acts as human beings may arise from letting go and forgetting, from our willingness and ability to start anew with the current needs of a relationship. But you, too, are a record keeper! Your writing has relied on journals and notes that you’ve kept for years. Does the story address your own desire to find a balance between preserving the past and living in the present? 

DH: It’s not about balance (which incidentally doesn’t exist), but about recent technological change. When I was a child I had a fantasy of recording everything, of writing everything down so that nothing could ever be lost. I still keep journals and notebooks. But in recent years, social media has made my childhood dream come true—and turned it into a nightmare. Watching everyone archiving their lunch online for the past five years has made me think more clearly about the distinction between memory and history. I feel sorry for people younger than me (I’m 36), because they will never have a chance to meet a stranger. Everything they do will already be there for the world to see, and they won’t have that chance to reinvent themselves by telling a new story about their past that suits their present needs. Of course, this is only an exponential updating of an ancient problem. In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates complains about how the new technology—writing—is destroying memory, because now that people can just write things down, who will memorize the epics of Homer? He was right. Nobody memorizes Homer anymore, or their best friend’s phone number either.

Technology always changes the way we consider the past. But the past isn’t a story. It’s a sequence of events that, once it’s gone, can’t be objectively accessed and can only be retold, in countless ways—and the way we choose to tell that story becomes our identity. People who lived through the same experience can understand it in wildly different ways, and that difference is what distinguishes one person’s soul from another’s. There’s a double helix of free will and fate that defines our lives—the circumstances we find ourselves in, and how we decide to remember those experiences.

R&P: The novel focuses on siblings—a relationship that often gets overlooked in the American Jewish community, where concerns about “continuity” lead to a preoccupation with the relationship between parents and children, and that between grandparents and grandchildren. “From generation to generation” has been an American Jewish motto since the mid-twentieth century. Your novel makes us think about siblings—the relationship about which there is least pressure to take responsibility. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” we all seem to ask ourselves. The answer we usually come up with is no. Yet siblings may be the best family metaphor for an individual’s relationship with her peers and her community. Our siblings are fellow-travelers in life, keepers of the same memories. We grow up with our siblings, but we often expect to make different choices and take divergent paths. As adults, the “rules” about how to live with and love our brothers and sisters seem unclear. Jealousies and resentments from the past have the potential to weigh down these relationships, as your book beautifully explores. What sparked your interest in siblings and memory?

DH: That double helix of fate and free will I talked about earlier exists in microcosmic form for siblings who grew up together, in the form of the nature-versus-nurture debate. These are people who were raised in the same circumstances, but often you’d never know it, and their memories of their supposedly shared past are often very different. I grew up with two sisters and a brother, and the four of us are still very close as adults, but I appreciate how unusual that is. I also have four small children of my own, and I already see how they have their own world within my home that in large part doesn’t include me. 

The contemporary story in my novel is a rewriting of the Joseph story from Genesis, retold in contemporary times, and with women instead of men. The Joseph story is a perfect encapsulation of this question of destiny and free will. Joseph can see the future through dreams, but his story is not otherwise supernatural—it appears to take place entirely through human choices (his brothers sell him into slavery, his master’s wife frames him for assault, etc.). Yet at the end, when his brothers reunite with him in Egypt and he reveals himself to them, he tells them, “Don’t be angry at yourselves that you sold me to this place, because it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you”—turning his brother’s crimes into a benevolent act of God! To me, this is an astonishing revision of history. But it’s also illustrative of the kind of selective memory that’s absolutely necessary in families and in all relationships. Forgiveness is always an act of fiction, and there is no more gracious act than creating that story.

R&P: If there is still a notion of Jews as a “chosen people” in contemporary America, it is embodied by Josie and Itamar: their beauty, brains, wit, and financial success is what it looks like today, to be “chosen.” Connecting the dots (or data) from this year’s Pew Survey suggests, too, that the pride that American Jews feel in identifying with being Jewish is quite likely connected with their tendency to associate Jewishness with intelligence, humor, and talent. Josie’s sister Judith is not part of this elite, but she is, perhaps, the more cherished wife and mother figure. While she isn’t successful in terms of lighting on the “next big idea,” Judith is sensitive to the needs of those around her. She comforts mourners and tends to the sick. And yet, she’s not the “favorite child,” and at times, she comes off as ugly in all the ways that will be familiar to an honest reader. What were your feelings and concerns about this character?

DH: I was definitely attempting to create a “chosen” sense with Josie and Itamar, who are part of this technological elite. (It’s the modern equivalent of Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams.) And you are correct that Josie’s sister Judith does not have those intellectual or other gifts. I wanted to call those gifts into question, because in Western culture we consider those gifts to be products of hard work, evidence of a “meritocracy,” which they clearly aren’t. No matter what opportunities Judith has, she will never invent a software platform. Yet in my research I saw how old this premium on intellectual achievement is. In his Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides even claims that divine providence is contingent on the divine gift of intellect—that the way God protects people is by giving them brains that allow them to solve their own problems. (Too bad, I suppose, for those not smart enough to do so.) I found this to be astoundingly arrogant, and also astoundingly familiar from the American culture in which I live.

Judith is my reinvention of the biblical character of Judah—a person who is instrumental in throwing his brother into the pit, but who is also later instrumental in demonstrating his humanity in Egypt when Joseph places him in the same situation again. And Josie is my reinvention of the biblical Joseph—a person who really is talented, but who also really is arrogant, and within whom talent and arrogance are not merely intertwined but dependent on each other.

R&P: Recent news coverage of laws banning polygamy in Utah makes me think of the protagonists’ marriage in your novel. There’s something of a “sister wives” moment in A Guide For the Perplexed. It’s a credit to your storytelling craft that you manage to portray this as a beautiful thing. What about spousal and sibling relationships were you exploring here? 

DH: The other biblical story that I was reinterpreting here, within the Joseph story, was the story of Judah and Tamar—an illicit sexual relationship that happens for the supposedly noble purpose of preserving a family. (In the biblical version, Judah’s sons marry Tamar in succession and each die without heirs, prompting Tamar to disguise herself as a prostitute, seduce her father-in-law, and give birth to his child in order to maintain his family line. Lovely, isn’t it?) Without giving too much away, my Judith character does end up becoming involved with her sister’s husband in her sister’s absence. While I’ve reversed the genders, this is actually a concept in Jewish law called a yibum marriage. When a married man dies and he has an unmarried brother, his widow is supposed to marry the brother (though she is allowed to refuse). I believe this is actually the only legal obligation between siblings in Jewish law.

In my story, this romance, such as it is, is tightly tied to the jealousies between the two sisters. But I was also interested in the obligations we have toward spouses and siblings. In American culture we’re told that marriage should be the culmination of soul-enlarging love or somesuch, but the reality is that you’re choosing someone to whom you are going to be obligated for life (even if you get divorced, in many cases)—and often, to whom your other relatives will be obligated as well. Judaism doesn’t do romance so well, but it does do obligation really well, and American culture is just the opposite. So I wanted to explore what this kind of obligation would look like in a modern context.

R&P: You’ve had a few months of an exciting book tour. Are there still plenty of opportunities for readers to catch you around the country? And how have readers responded to the book? What kinds of comments/conversations have you had about technology and knowledge, or about memory?

DH: Yes, I spoke in 15 cities, and in the coming months I’ll be speaking in New York, California, Florida, Michigan, and Australia, among other places. (There’s a list on my website.) With this book, I’ve had a lot of interesting interactions about the larger questions of memory and technology—of whether we want to be able to record all of our past. I’ve found that there is a generational divide about this, with older people being more interested in curating the past and younger people being more content with dumping their photos and other memories, uncurated, onto the Internet platforms of their choice.

I would have assumed that this divide was simply because the younger people are more comfortable with the technology. But that’s only a small part of it. It’s really because the older people have more often had the experience of having to clean out the detritus of someone else’s life—cleaning out a grown-up child’s room, for instance, or more powerfully, of selling a dead parent’s house. The younger people often haven’t had to confront the consequences of too many memories, but the older people are more likely to know the challenge of having to go through their parents’ attic and throw out the stacks of magazines their father loved or the recipe clippings that remind them of their mother—and more importantly, the mental experience of taking those people’s lives and finding a way to fit them, entirely, into their own.

R&P: I loved the novel’s ending. It was one of those rare not-totally-happy endings that left me immensely satisfied and happy for its realness. What were you aiming for, in this ending?

DH: An ending that is also a beginning. The double helix of fate and free will seems to have been resolved at a point just before the ending, and then it twists again—the steps one character takes to ameliorate the future end up wildly backfiring. My intent was for the reader to call into question everything she was assuming about the consequences of our actions, about how much we can control our lives. To me, a religious attitude toward life, which this book considers and challenges, is less about whether or not one believes in God than about whether or not one believes that it’s possible for humans to control the future.

R&P: Recently, the visionary philanthropist Edgar Bronfman died. Bronfman was a leader of many Jewish causes, including a past president of the World Jewish Congress. But one of his favorite philanthropic ventures was said to be the Bronfman Youth Fellowships, an Israel summer program in which we both participated when we were teenagers. Famously, Bronfman was not interested in God, but he was highly invested in Jewish life, and in the conversing, learning, reading, and writing that are so integral to it. As a former fellow and writer, what are your thoughts on Bronfman’s legacy in relation to your work?

DH: Josh Lambert, a literary critic, recently spoke at a conference about the blossoming of Jewish American fiction in the past decade, and made the bold claim that much of this new “wave” is due to something few critics have acknowledged: institutional support (whether in formal educational settings, or even in the pages of The New Yorker) for creative approaches to Jewish culture. He interviewed me about this, noting that the fellowship you and I participated in, which is less than thirty years old, has already produced several successful authors. When he asked if the fellowship offered any explicit support to writers (grants, introductions to publishers, etc.), I had to say no. But I think he was right that this program, among only a handful of others, was instrumental in shaping a generation of creative Jewish thinkers. As teenagers on the program, we were encouraged, regardless of our previous education, to take ownership of Jewish texts, to argue with them and to learn from them and to find ways to make them ours. That creative engagement with the tradition at a very high level, for thoughtful teenagers at a formative point in their lives, was enormously important to me in my development as a writer.

R&P: When we chatted in December, you were getting ready for the 2013 White House Hanukkah party. You wrote movingly about that experience in The Wall Street JournalReligion & Politics readers might be interested to know: who was there, what did they serve, and did the president sing any Hanukkah songs?

DH: A third of the Supreme Court was there, along with many Jewish members of Congress, Jews in the administration, journalists, several hundred rabbis and other communal leaders, and the odd lost creative soul, including me and Larry David (who apparently stayed in character by hating it). The White House kitchen was kashered, and they served lamb chops, latkes, roasted vegetables and sufganiot. And while the president didn’t sing, the Marine Band did play Maoz Tsur!

Rachel Gordan is the Ray D. Wolfe Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Toronto.

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